Title: Roger & Me
Release Date: December 20, 1989
Director: Michael Moore
Production Company: Dog Eat Dog Films
Roger & Me was one of my favorite movies of my youth and one I find that holds up well revisiting it several decades later. This was Michael Moore’s first documentary and his most human. While later films like Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 were important agitprop for their time, Roger & Me holds up best as an actual movie. This is partly because Moore was not yet famous and thus the subjects of the film had no frame of reference for what to do when Michael Moore crosses their threshold with a camera. But it is also less scattershot and more focused on a central narrative.
The premise of the film is that Moore is returning to his home town of Flint, Michigan after working in San Francisco. His return coincides with General Motors’ president Roger Smith closing down several assembly plants in Flint and laying off thousands of workers. Moore makes it his mission to talk with Smith and bring him to Flint to see the effects of the layoffs, something that proves very hard to do. In between attempts to locate Smith, Moore interviews ordinary people in Flint as well as city officials and civic boosters attempting to revive the city with increasingly ludicrous plans to replace the auto industry.
The movie is very funny, but not due to Moore. A couple of jokes he tells in narration fall flat. Instead the enthusiasm of city officials and celebrities for saving the city with things ranging from an indoor theme park to a prison bring the laughs. The cockeyed optimism is hard to believe, but the 1980s were a very optimistic time. Optimism trickled down from President Reagan (see what I did there?) and lead people to believe that famine could be ended with a song or homelessness would be solved by a human chain across the country. Even the ordinary people suffering layoffs and evictions depicted in this movie don’t have the rage that you would expect to see today. Of course, they had no idea that things in Flint would continue to get much, much worse.
The Beach Boys’ song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is featured prominently in this movie over a montage of abandoned buildings. I forever associate this song with this movie, and its appropriate in that the lyrics express hopefulness with an undercurrent of melancholy. Whatever the flaws of Michael Moore’s later career, and he really did let fame go to his head, this movie remains a masterpiece.